Trouble in Paradise
“On the road from uselessness to freedom, creativity becomes the main issue, the only way to be independent.” An essay by Chief Government Architect Floris Alkemade on the implications of automation for the future of labour, in response to WORK, BODY, LEISURE.
Work, Body, Leisure is about the future of labour, a theme that is as emotionally charged as it is rich. In our time, a dark undercurrent is slowly becoming visible: we are becoming so efficient in mechanizing our labour that we are threatening to make ourselves redundant. We anticipate a future in which, for many, all time will be leisure time. Through our very work ethic and unwavering zeal, the foundation of our existence, ‘the duty to work’, is being swept away – hence Trouble in Paradise.
As with all major themes, there is an unmistakable schizophrenia about work. However pleasant your job may be, your salary is important: work requires effort and regularity, and is linked to the compelling need to make money. Leisure forms the counterpoint: only outside the compelling systematic structure of labour is there space for relaxation, an existential split between production and consumption. This dualism, which characterizes our existence, is oddly accepted as self-evident.
Looking back through history, we see how, for most of us, all our hard work has barely generated enough prosperity for a dignified existence. This is rapidly changing thanks to the development of science and technology. The first wave of industrialization replaced muscle power with machines, an ongoing process with ever-increasing impact. Thanks to a never-ending stream of revolutionary technological developments, more and more work will continue to be taken out of our hands. Although more (and often laborious and repetitive) work is becoming redundant, the question remains, to what extent will all our human labour actually disappear. For the time being, automation in poorer countries still demands countless anonymous low-wage workers,who sit behind the machines that make our luxurious lifestyle possible.
But technological development continues at an ever-increasing acceleration. The far-reaching automation and robotization which we are already witnessing is taking a new and decisive turn with development of artificial intelligence: now brainpower too is being replaced by machines.
This will not only change conditions in Asian sweatshops, but in the western world too, we are at the beginning of a revolution with far-reaching consequences. Truck driving is the most common male profession in the Netherlands. It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage virtually all of this professional group becoming unnecessary in the near future, thanks to the advent of self-driving trucks steered by AI. Many other professions will follow. According to a study by Oxford University, about half of all existing jobs will have disappeared before 2035.
In part, thanks to the same technological development, new professions will emerge that will be more interesting and relevant because of far-reaching mechanization. Humans will be in charge of ever more advanced technologies. But this will certainly not apply to everyone. For an ever-increasing number of people being driven out of their profession by technology, no replacement work will be available, because they will simply have no skills that cannot be faster, better and more cheaply executed by machines.
This technological revolution will turn out to be the ruthless accelerator of a social dichotomy. A diminishing elite of people who acquire influential jobs with all the associated status and power, versus an ever-growing group of people who are being sidelined at random.
This rather dark future perspective provides a good reason to look back once more at the New Babylon project, by Constant Nieuwenhuys. After all, the basis of the project, on which he worked for about 20 years, was the future human freed from the necessity of labour. New Babylon was inspired by the industrialization that arose during the Post-War years with such rapidity that it already conjured images of progressive mechanization making human labour redundant.
In a profound way, Constant explored the possibilities of a world and society where labour would no longer be necessary. The starting point was Homo Ludens, the ‘playing human’ who had been proposed earlier, in 1938, by the historian Johan Huizinga. In Huizinga’s theory, the game is a unique human characteristic which distinguishes us from the animals and is a necessary condition for cultural and societal development. For Constant, it becomes the reason to build and design the associated future city – a city for a new society in which unemployment would not be seen as a problem to be solved, but as the greatest fulfilment of existence.
In Constant’s own words: “New Babylon offers only minimal conditions for behavior, which should remain as free as possible. Any limitation with regard to freedom of movement, any restriction regarding the creation of mood and atmosphere, must be prevented. Everything must remain possible, everything must be able to happen; the environment is created by the activities of life, and not the other way around.”
Creativity is finally freed from its chains, every restriction is prevented, and technological progress is the key to freedom. It requires a strongly utopian mind to redefine unemployment and redundancy.
"In the context of Work, Body, Leisure, perhaps we can interpret the New Babylon project as a message that uselessness is a condition for freedom".
In the space of time between utopia and reality, advancing technology has become so ingenious and indispensable that its original service role is increasingly shifting into the background. Technology invades all aspects of our lives in an unprecedented manner, stealing not only our work but also our attention. The servant emerges as master. Our growing dependence inevitably brings with it a shift of power. Giedeon's Mechanization takes Command, published in 1948, assumes a more existential dimension than ever.
The interface between man and machine is still the screen. The television, computer, smartphone and tablet all communicate with us through electronic screens that provide us with increasingly higher resolution, and ever sharper and more realistic images. A good measure of our dependence and the hijacking of our attention is the amount of time we spend staring at a screen. People are awake for about 1000 minutes a day. Out of those 1000 minutes, we are currently looking at a screen for about 500 minutes a day. Our screen time continues to increase steadily: the average American adult is already up to 640 minutes a day. In this epic battle between the real and the virtual worlds, the virtual world seems to be gaining ground.
It is important to note that the work behind the screen is versatile and often extremely content-packed, and that the unexpected technological possibilities offered to us from all sides are hallucinogenic and enriching in many ways. Our productive power is increasing rapidly. The list of devices made obsolete by our smartphones grows ever longer. But this development goes beyond just replacing once-essential hardware. The accompanying software is also provoking the inevitable upheavals.
This is illustrated by the fact that perhaps almost the entirety of our world literature is based on themes and plot twists that would fundamentally change in the present age. What would be left of The Odyssey if Odysseus – like today’s refugees – had been able to plan his trip via Google Maps and use Facebook to keep in touch with his wife and friends at home? Perhaps the most characteristic indication of the changes in our own time is that virtually all the works of world literature no longer apply.
The ethics behind the accompanying software also open up a whole new domain of dependencies. Photo cameras are becoming increasingly scarce due to the amazing quality of the photos that smartphones now take with the greatest of ease. But the phone also manipulates reality with the same ease. To better connect with a presumed ideal of beauty, Samsung has a ‘beauty face mode’ that turns itself on as the front-facing camera is used. Your selfie receives an automatic and unasked-for airbrush that subtly erases irregularities such as pimples and spots, giving you the option to slim your face and make your eyes bigger. The objective is not the mapping of your real face, but a supposed corrected version of it. The ‘beauty face mode’ shows how an alternative truth claims a place in our lives that is as subtle as it is treacherous. Since so many Facebook friends see a person’s photo more often than their real face, one truth is quickly replaced by another.
"In the series Work, Body, Leisure, the body does not escape the shift of meaning and morality. In the virtual world, alternative truth is neither a bias nor a lie, but an option."
Our spirit, as the custodian of the body, now enjoys own everyday Odyssey – the most fantastic virtual worlds that continue to offer new, unprecedented possibilities in the most grandiose ways. In stark contrast, our bodies lag behind in that other, real world, suddenly strangely superfluous and motionless.
Seen from the real world, screen time – however meaningful and rich it may be to experience – offers a rather pitiful image, a body posture that radiates neither dignity nor grace, due to the striking superfluity of the body hunched over the screen. The ingeniously evolved, refined fine motor skills of which our hands are capable are used exclusively for repeatedly pressing keys.
With some good will, it could be seen as a modern form of devotion: contemplative monastic orders also lived according to the insight that it was good to be in this world, yet not of this world. The mind back then, as in our own time of almighty search engines and infinite data storage, was also focused on what was called the All-Knowing –then another indication of the divine.
"‘Die Umwertung aller Werte’. It is stunning and disconcerting to see how fast this development is engulfing our lives. Most of us experienced the beginning of the computer era; and our smartphones are only 10 years old."
Almost as a by-product, modern social media also emerged through technology and then made screen life a large part of our social lives. An alternative truth with 100 new best friends. But the virtual world also literally creates pseudo realities. Quickly, computers were no longer exclusively focused on the domain of serious work. Leisure made its appearance. Computer games have long surpassed the phase of the first popular game Pong, in which you could bounce a ball back and forth with sliding bars. Game environments are increasingly realistic and interactive. The action, working together to get to the next level, and the life-like intense tension make these games addictive and provide a huge adrenaline kick.
A comparison is sometimes made between these games and the work of drone pilots who, from a container in Nevada, steer real drones over Afghanistan via screen and joystick: at the push of a button, life-like hell and damnation is released on the other side of the real world. You would expect that no game could match the intensity of the experience of the real work of these drone pilots. Actually, the reverse is the case. The computer games turn out to be much more intense, in terms of the intensity of the experience. A drone attack in the real world requires a lot of preparation and an extensive consideration via a ‘chain of command’ before the button can actually be pressed. Missions often consist of circling and waiting for weeks on end. Operations have failed several times because both drone pilots (they always work in pairs) had fallen asleep. In the US Army, there is a new field of interest that is called ‘monotony management’, keeping the pilots alert during actions. This is not necessary in the virtual game world. The continuous action and tension provide a strong dose of adrenaline, while real killing in the real world has become sleep-inducing. Perhaps the most characteristic feature of the changes in our time is that the game has become more exciting than reality. Leisure takes command.
Looking at the rapidly growing dependency in so many areas at the same time, there is no immediate picture of increased freedom, but rather of submission.
In one move, Work, Body, Leisure are simultaneously caught in a new technological regime that, through its indispensability, spins a web of dependence around us".
The New Babylon project focused on shaping “the environment that is created by the activities of life, and not the other way around”. It’s interesting to think about what sort of environment should be created, when the activities of life consist – for more than half of the time – of staring at a screen. Technology is developing in a way that indeed makes much of our work redundant, but with such a far-reaching form of dependency that it does not seem to be the harbinger of the increased freedom that the New Babylon project had in mind. And it was precisely from the idea of freedom that Constant Nieuwenhuys claimed the right to uselessness in his project. A radical rejection of the dogma that places work as a duty; a radical rejection of the foundation of our entire society.
The background of the idea of work as duty is described in its sharpest detail in the parable of Adam and Eve, who could have stayed, completely useless and carefree, in the earthly paradise. If, that is, they had fulfilled the condition of submission to a higher power by not eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. All credit to Eve, who rightly refused to accept this ultimate humiliation. After all, the paradisaical combination of uselessness and subjection systematically rules out any form of freedom. As punishment for the unfulfilled desire for knowledge and for not accepting submission, humanity was banished from the earthly paradise. From now on, work must be done “with the sweat of the brow”. Work was a punishment for the desire for knowledge of good and evil.
It was in line with this that the strict Calvinistic ideas arose that permeated Dutch culture in its entirety: work in humility. In a subtle but deadly twist, it is this strict acceptance of the duty to work, which has brought us so much prosperity and technological progress through the ages, that is now making redundant the very labour that is its goal. Unintentionally and unnoticed, we are working our way back to the earthly paradise. Once more useless and once more subject, albeit this time to the higher power of technology and artificial intelligence.
"With the bed, Work, Body, Leisure presents a unique form of horizontal architecture which can be said to be entirely dedicated to uselessness. In bed, we remain in our most vulnerable state every day, a third of our lives absorbed in a dream time, while at the same time the world around us stops as a special form of grace in darkness."
But when we go to bed during the day, it becomes a deliberate action. In this line, we opted for a re-enactment of the famous bed which John Lennon and Yoko Ono occupied in their ‘bed-in’ for a week in 1969 to promote peace. “Like angels,” in the words of John Lennon, with their action they claimed the right to uselessness, as Constant did.
In the Work, Body, Leisure exhibition at the Venice Biennale, architects were invited to sit in bed for interviews. Different interpretations fight for priority. Architects in bed during the day – are they, in a derivative form of John and Yoko, detached from the world and lovingly presented as oracles? Or is their position in bed a representation of the profession as a form of paid love? Or do we recognize the patient in the architect who has to stay in bed out of weakness? Perhaps it’s a combination of all these possibilities. Only, the interpretation of the useless architect does not yet appear. That even exceeds the imagination of an architect.
"Work, Body, Leisure: all three irrevocably on the way to increasing uselessness. The same uselessness that Constant set as a condition for freedom, paving the way for the creative, playing human."
It is now quite conceivable that we really will reach that enlightened state of uselessness; ultimately, technology stands for nothing. But the freedom that it brings is not being thrown at us in the same generous manner. Technology hijacks our labour as it also catches our attention, a form of servile submission that embodies the words of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach: “Happy slaves are the greatest enemies of freedom.”
In this light, we will no longer be able to afford the luxury of continuing to consider creativity and art as a sideshow. On the road from uselessness to freedom, creativity becomes the main issue, the only way to be independent. This is anything but self-evident, because as humans we have always been able to give meaning to our existence through all kinds of intense suffering and hard work; but freedom without subjection can simply destroy us: Trouble in Paradise.